Comparing Russia’s policies between 2011-15 and 2015-21
The response of the Russian government to the Arab uprisings that began in January 2011 has aimed primarily at protecting its interests in the Middle East, including security and economic objectives. Nonetheless, it has pursued different approaches over time: an initial period of observation and political pressure between 2011 and 2015, followed by more active policies thereafter. This essay explains the reasons for this shift and argues that Russia’s policies since 2015 are likely to continue, despite domestic and external challenges.
The earlier phase is characterized by carefully weighed reactions, restricted to diplomatic and political moves rather than direct intervention. One of Moscow’s pragmatic decisions was to observe the fall of the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, rather than intervene. In Egypt, however, Russia was more active as it showed a willingness to co-operate with the new Muslim Brotherhood government in the name of a “strong, democratic” Egypt after the withdrawal of Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, protests in Bahrain and growing opposition to President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen were viewed as internal matters only, while long-term Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad found Russian political support against both U.N. sanctions and military intervention.
After 2015, Russia began to pursue more direct engagement, with the shift to military intervention in the Syrian Civil War marking a notable turning point. Russia justified its presence in Syria by stating that it is fighting against the Islamic State and other extremist groups. This itself is connected with the domestic factor, because of Moscow’s fear of the radicalisation of minorities in Russia. Without doubt, Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian War, where Moscow built alliances with the Assad regime (along with other regional players, such Iran and the Iran-backed Hizbullah militia) also operated to preserve supplies of weapons, oil investments and naval access. Geopolitically, Syria was crucial to the return of Russia’s great power status, at least on the basis of military power influence, and as Fedor Lukyanov of HSE stated in Rossiyaskaya gazeta in March: “The Syrian war has reshaped not only the Middle East. It was in Syria that Russian status was established as a world-class power, which must be reckoned with, no matter how it is treated.” Similarly, relations with Tunisia and Libya have been rebuilt, largely through counterterrorism, nuclear energy, and tourism co-operation in the former case, and oil purchases in the latter. In January 2020, Moscow went as far as to broker talks between the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord and the forces of Gen. Khalifa Hifter in the Libyan Civil War. Again, Russian activity and pragmatism can be seen in its co-chairing of the Russia-Africa Economic Forum in Sochi in 2019, strengthening cooperation in the economic, security, diplomatic, and cultural fields with government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt.
Importantly, since 2015 Russia has actively involved its Muslim minorities in its foreign policy, further strengthening Russia’s presence in the region. For example, there is widespread acknowledgment of the role played by the Russian Muslim Republic of Chechnya and its leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been called “Russia’s Top Diplomat,” especially in the Middle East. Kadyrov has used his personal authority and contacts with a number of governments to share the Kremlin’s messages. This has been particularly relevant to Syria since 2015. Despite an initial denial of the presence of Chechen fighters among the Russian troops, the Chechen leader confirmed that an armed police battalion made up of ethnic Chechens was in Syria as part of the Russian Defence Military forces. In 2017, Maxim Suchkov of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) also noted that Kadyrov’s closest advisers, Adam Delimkhanov and Mufti of Chechnya Salah Haji Mezhiev, travelled to Syria to meet with Maher al-Assad, the brother of the Syrian president. This resulted in the decision by the Regional Public Fund named after Akhmat Hajji Kadyrov, Ramzan Kadyrov’s father, to fund the restoration of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, which was destroyed by ISIS.
Moreover, further economic engagements with regional players occurred thanks to the involvement of another important actor, the Tatarstan Republic. Tatarstan’s Tatneft, Russia’s fifth largest oil and gas company, signed an agreement with Libya National Oil Corporation (NOC) in 2005 that the Russian company would obtain about 10.5% of its production shares in the Ghadames Basin. Due to the deteriorating security situation, however, Tatneft only returned to Libya in December 2019, when it resumed exploration activities in the Hamada area. Tatarstan’s involvement is not a coincidence; it is the home of KazanSummit, a leading international event for developing economic ties between Russia and member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Moreover, Tatarstan’s president, Rustam Minnikhanov, is the head of the Group of the Strategic Vision “Russia-Islamic World,” the Kremlin’s institutional mechanism for further integrating its minorities into its foreign policies, which restarted its work in 2015.
Factors contributing to the change in policies
Why then has Moscow’s approach toward the region changed between 2011-15 and 2015 until today? At the beginning of the Arab uprisings, Russia’s very cautious response, arguably, was related to its own history. Russian academic Alexey Vasiliev, commenting on an Arab writer’s emotional words about the outcomes of the Arab Spring in Cairo, considered saying but did not say the following in order to spare his friend’s feelings:
“My dear friend! My faithful, honest, infinitely talented friend. I so want to believe you! I so want to believe in the future of Egypt, which I love so much. But I am from the country that over the past century has been through so many revolutions and counter-revolutions! And how bitterly I look at the current situation in my country.”
Indeed, in the 20th century alone, Russia underwent a number of revolutions and counter-revolutions: the Russian Revolution (1917-23), including the February Revolution (1917), the period of “dual power” (1917), the October Revolution (1917), the Russian Civil War (1917-23), and the consequent abolition of the Russian Empire and the establishment of Bolshevik rule with the new regime of the Soviet Union. Seven decades later Russia once again went through a period of upheaval following the failed August Coup in 1991, which resulted in the destabilization of the Communist regime, and the Soviet Union fell by the end of the year. Therefore, having itself experienced instability and periods of uncertainty with changing leadership and regimes, Russia opted to observe rather than take sides.
Another factor is domestic and particularly related to its leadership. The beginning of the Arab uprisings was under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, who was perceived as “more pro-Western” and as a “liberal figure” in comparison to Vladimir Putin. The different approaches of Medvedev and Putin can be illustrated by the case of Libya. During the Libyan uprising in 2011, Medvedev rejected then-Prime Minister Putin’s description of the U.N. resolution on Libya as “unacceptable”; Putin also said the resolution resembled “medieval calls for crusades.” Eventually, Russia abstained from voting on authorizing military action in Libya to protect civilians from pro-Gadhafi forces.
In comparison to Medvedev’s caution, the approach taken by Putin after his return to the presidency in 2012 was more assertive, arguably inspired by his vision of Russia’s place in world history. In 2005, Putin referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, and in 2018, he noted that “he would reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union if he had a chance to alter modern Russian history.” This is Putin’s “vision of Russia as a Normal Great Power,” which culminated in an intervention in the Syrian war. As Alina Polyakova stated in 2018, “Putin’s true geopolitical victory has been the successful undermining of U.S. interests in the Middle East, while establishing Russia as a major power broker across the region.” This is also relevant to some of the other reasons why Russia’s policies have changed since 2015 — namely external factors.
Historically, Russian policies have been based on countering the interests of Western opponents in the region, either the British Empire or the U.S., with its increasing role during the last century. Since 2015, however, Russia’s changing policies toward the Middle East have been very much linked to opportunities offered by the Western states themselves. For example, in a piece examining Donald Trump’s presidency, Steven Cook put his conclusions in the title: “Trump’s Middle East legacy is failure.” Under Trump, America’s traditional approach to the European Union shifted toward unilateralism, withdrawing from treaties and international organizations. The European Union has struggled with a migrant crisis, especially refugees arriving from across the Mediterranean Sea, which spiked as part of the fallout from the Arab Spring; also, the 2016 Brexit referendum and negotiations between the U.K. and EU have diverted attention away from the Middle East. As a result, Russia has also been given opportunities to take on a more active approach toward the Middle East since 2015.
The future of Russia’s policies in the Middle East
All these factors have shaped Russia’s policies since 2015 and can be vital for considering the future of its policies toward the region. It is highly likely that Russia will continue its policies in a similar vein to its approach since 2015. Firstly, as has been demonstrated, an important factor is leadership. Given the new constitutional reforms of 2020, which allowed Putin to set presidential term limits to zero in 2024, thus granting him the chance to serve two more six-year terms, it seems likely that he will be able to continue imposing his vision for Russian foreign policy in the Middle East. Russia’s active engagements with its partners, in the manner of balancing adversaries and opposing sides, will continue as well.
In the first month of 2021, already there were signs of the continuation of such policies: Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, visited Moscow to open up pathways for collaboration in various fields, including investment, development and exchange of technical expertise, and most importantly, given both players’ importance in the world energy market, efforts to overcome the challenges of the oil price war of 2020. Both states have agreed to further collaboration under the umbrella of OPEC+. Less than two weeks later, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also visited Moscow. Along with ongoing issues of collaboration in trade, the economy, energy, agriculture, transport, and industry, the two sides talked about building new units at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. One important outcome was the signing of the intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in ensuring information security. During recent official visits to the Gulf monarchies (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar), Lavrov met prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, in Abu Dhabi (March 9, 2021), in a week Lavrov met with delegation from Lebanon’s Hizbullah (March 16, 2021), while Israeli foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, visited Moscow in a few days after (March 20, 2021). Similarly, Muslim populations will continue to be actively engaged in Russia’s foreign policies in the Middle East. For example, the COVID-postponed meeting of the Group of the Strategic Vision “Russia-Islamic World” is set to take place in Saudi Arabia in 2021.
However, there are challenges to continuing such an active approach in the Middle East. Among them are the domestic protests in support of the jailed opposition activist Alexey Navalny that occurred in February 2021. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the support for Navalny across the whole of Russia is quite low, mainly because he is not the leader of any opposition party and the details of his policies to bring about change within the country are hazy. This is not likely to change the leadership of Russia, though it might lead to domestic reforms, which may in turn affect Russia’s foreign policies and its attempts to strengthen its great power status in the Middle East. Another domestic challenge is Russia’s economy, given the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the drop in oil prices in the middle of 2020, with an expected deficit of 4.4% of GDP in 2020. Based on analysts’ reports, however, Russia’s economy is handling the coronavirus better than most, and 2020 was the first year that it came close to actually breaking into the top five largest economies in the world — at least based on purchasing power parity (PPP) indicators, which consider differences in living standards. The pandemic presents a major challenge to all economies worldwide and it will also affect Russia’s competitors in the Middle East. According to the World Bank, COVID-19 has plunged the global economy into its deepest recession since World War II and this can be seen in the performance of leading economies: The U.S. economy shrank by 3.5% in 2020, the worst year for growth since 1946, while France estimated a loss of 7% and Germany’s GDP is expected to fall by 5.4%.
This links up with another challenge — namely the policies of external players toward the region and Russia’s ability to protect its interests with limited costs. The main uncertainty is the Biden administration’s foreign policies and whether U.S. policies will challenge Russia’s position in the region. How will this affect relations with Russia and its interests in the Middle East? Biden’s vision is based on a return to traditional U.S. diplomacy and multilateralism, stressing that “America’s going to reassert its role in the world and be a coalition builder,” but without his presidency being “a third term of the Obama administration.” Does this mean that the U.S. plans to return to its leadership role? If so, it may challenge Russia’s interests. For example, as a defender of human rights values, the Biden administration may make stronger efforts to end wars and conflicts (for example, in Syria, Yemen, and Libya). Just 10 days after taking office, the Biden administration called on Russia and Turkey to halt their Libyan intervention. At the same time, it is expected that the Biden administration will return to the Iran nuclear deal and collaborate with its European partners, which may put it on a collision course with Russian interests (though it should be mentioned that Russia is also one of the P5+1 states that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran). How Russia will balance its policies with its rivals and adversaries remains to be seen, given the uncertainty of the Biden administration’s position compared to the Trump administration’s construction of an anti-Iran “axis” consisting of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Already, the new administration has halted U.S. support for Saudi-led operations in Yemen, adding new uncertainties alongside Biden’s policies toward Israel and Palestine, especially given the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, decision to transfer the American embassy there, and acknowledgment of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. How Russia will address and respond to the new policies of the Biden administration remains uncertain as of early 2021.
Furthermore, Russia’s interests are not solely challenged by Western powers. China is another growing influence in the Middle East in recent years. Today, China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil and Iraq’s largest trading partner. In the first half of 2020, Iraqi oil shipments to China increased almost 30% from a year earlier. China’s cooperation with Gulf partners is growing too. In 2017 and 2018, China and the UAE further enhanced their energy ties, as state oil companies from both countries signed several agreements. During the same period, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation also sought a $3 billion stake in Abu Dhabi oilfields, and received the largest onshore-offshore seismic survey contract from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, worth $1.6 billion. In Saudi Arabia, a grand high-speed railway project connecting the city of Jeddah to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina has been undertaken in cooperation with Chinese firms. In Dubai, a Chinese-Saudi bid secured the contract to construct the extension for the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park.
Overall, an examination of Russia’s policies toward the Middle East since the Arab uprisings demonstrates a marked change in their character since 2015. This is particularly linked with Russia’s leadership and history, as well as emerging opportunities. In other words, as a result of a number of different factors, these uprisings created new opportunities for Moscow to strengthen its interests in the region. While Russia is expected to continue these policies going forward, there are still challenges ahead, including both domestic and external ones, as well as significant uncertainties.
Diana Galeeva is an Academic Visitor to St Antony’s College (Oxford University). Her research interests include concepts of power, the GCC's foreign policies and relations between Russia and the GCC states.
Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
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